In September, I had a conversation with Mayor Buddy Dyer at Orlando Weekly's Artlando event in which he asked when was the last time we wrote something positive about downtown development. I told him that we had (we do, and I pointed some things out), but I also pointed out to him that it's not really our role to search for positive things to say. The role of the media is to provide people with accurate information about what's happening in their communities without getting sucked into the spin cycle. And the Weekly's specific role as alternative media is to put a extra emphasis on finding people, places and things that don't get the attention we think they deserve. It's also our job to find the cracks in the facade of some of our city's biggest endeavors – not because we like to be jerks or want to detract from our city's growth, but because we want it to grow not just bigger, but better.
We don't want to see the same mistakes happening over and over again, and we think the people who don't have the money to get their messages out there deserve to be heard, too. Without somebody whose job it is to point out the shortcomings and the inefficiencies and the errors and the opponents' point of view, how will our city ever grow? How will it ever change? Will it ever improve?
That said, we don't want to naysay just for the sake of expressing our opinions. Sometimes we need to give credit where it's due. This year, for instance, we want to give a shout-out to the Project DTO task force for giving Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer (and us) something pretty unique to talk about when it comes to downtown development. The project was formed in late 2013 to create a vision for the growth and development of downtown Orlando into what Dyer says is now a "world-class" city (a term we actually looked up, by the way, because it gets thrown around so much; the dictionary definition is "of the highest class, as in international competition," in case you were wondering). Project DTO did the thing we've wished many growing cities would do more often – it asked the people of the city to tell it what they'd like to see change, grow and improve downtown, not the developers or the big-money donors or other politicians, all of whom we hear plenty from. It asked the people who live here and have to deal with the inconveniences and traffic and day-to-day hassles that come with living in a city that's still trying to grow up.
Over the course of 2014, Project DTO held outreach events and used social media to ask locals for feedback. It handed out "vision books" that residents could fill out like journals to brainstorm what a better, more interesting downtown would look like. It examined the arts, economic competitiveness, "identity," social fabric, access, neighborhoods, historic preservation (something we don't hear enough about in Orlando), green space and other things key to quality of life.
The results were a key part of Dyer's Dec. 3 State of Downtown address. In addition to praise for the new projects that are well underway – the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, the new soccer stadium, the new Citrus Bowl – he pointed out the 10 "big ideas" Project DTO urged the city to focus on in order to be a good place not just for developers, but for people.
You've seen the mayor's speech and you've seen the projects that he's been breaking ground on and ribbon-cutting over the past year, but have you seen the pages of the vision books and the Instagram photos your fellow Orlandoans submitted as part of Project DTO? As I said earlier, the big, shiny things always get to take center stage – the smaller, less flashy things sometimes get overlooked. So we wanted to take the following pages to make sure the people's role in Project DTO doesn't get overlooked – so in the following pages, we've published excerpts from those books, which Project DTO has also put online in a Flickr gallery. They're full of both hope and critique – as they should be.
Over the course of the next year, it'll be our job to look at how well the city implements those 10 big ideas – your ideas – to create a downtown that's not just "world-class," but also a place we want to live and visit.
Project DTO found that there are 10 things Orlandoans want their downtown to become.
1. An awesome outdoor city
2. A highly connected community
3. The best education in Florida
4. A great place to do business
5. A creator culture
6. An iconic identity
7. Stellar music, arts, sports and entertainment
8. A diverse and open community that takes care of its own
9. A celebration of history, heritage and culture
10 A city built for the future
Here are our big ideas that we think would contribute to a thriving Orlando.
1. Consider re-examining comprehensive planning for neighborhoods outside of downtown to reflect and enhance culture and communities that are already thriving. Don't let aggressive development trample on delicate things that are growing organically.
2. Take a look at how police are handling crimes that happen in and around the city's downtown bar district – we've heard complaints about officers not taking reports of violent crime seriously, we've seen officers open fire near busy downtown venues and we have had a frightening number of killings and assaults in and near bars in 2014 – it might be time to hold a town meeting with bar owners, police and city officials to find out how we can do better.
3. Create Project DTO-style task forces for all of the city's Main Streets, so the stakeholders in those areas can give feedback to their elected officials for improvements in their neighborhoods.
4. Make visiting downtown an easier experience for those of us who live in outlying neighborhoods – if parking in public garages and lots is hiked to $10 when there are "events" downtown, it decreases the likelihood that people who just want dinner or drinks or who want to make a quick stop will do so downtown.
5. Create a streamlined process for permitting that makes it easier for small, locally owned businesses to set up shop in and around downtown Orlando. We desperately need retail and a stronger gallery culture close to downtown – make the process more transparent, easier and faster, especially for small business owners with successful track records or strong business plans.
6. Stop tearing down the few cool, old buildings we have left in our downtown core. If they're in decent shape, adapt and reuse. Don't be so quick to throw away our history.
7. We said this last year, and we'll say it again – we need SunRail to run on weekends. Yeah, we know, this is not in the city's purview. But we feel like we can't say it often enough.
8. Have you ever noticed that downtown Orlando feels a little like an ominous riot zone after midnight? Mounted police, barricades, diverted traffic. It's kind of alarming. Can we do something about that?
9. Let the food trucks come back to downtown. A lunchtime lineup along Lake Eola during the week would be a huge incentive to head over that way on days when we'd never even think of leaving our bunker in Mills 50.
10. Bring Orlando Weekly back downtown! Oh, wait, that's already happening. Look for us in our new building in downtown Orlando in early 2015. We'll be seeing a lot more of you when we're neighbors, Mayor Dyer. Do you have a cup of sugar we could borrow?
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer delivers his annual State of Downtown address.
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